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Cape Horn On the Albion

As I write, rain is predicted to arrive in a day or two, with re-occurring precipitation of measurable amounts forecast throughout the coming week. Here, along the Albion, we can certainly use a downpour or two or three. The river is extraordinarily low for December, easily forded in many places between this ranch and South Fork a couple of miles eastward. I have written recently about our cattle walking along the dry creek bed to escape beyond fencing in that easterly direction. Humans need only employ a hop and skip, never mind the jump, to avoid the trickling stream, and cross from side to side in most locations. 

About a mile and a half northeast of the forks of the Albion its main branch snakes so precipitously, first north to south then south to north, that on maps of a century or so ago this bend in the stream was known as Cape Horn. In the 1950s our family enjoyed brief camping forays amid the then lightly wooded headlands of “Cape Horn.” Another quarter mile north along the main branch of the Albion lie the remains of a place my father always referred to as “the old Heaton place.” 

It is one of the locales my father used his local geography teaching skills at. When I was a small boy, whenever we drove or walked there my father would point and say simply, “The old Heaton place.”

This was repeated until I beat him to the punch, offhandedly pointing and remarking, “The old Heaton place.” His job was done, and occasionally in this newer century I have utilized the same method for places of local historic note.

I never knew the Heatons. They must have given up their farm many years before I came along. I believe they preceded by decades my mother’s arrival, by marriage, into the Macdonald clan in 1941. Nevertheless, until recent years apple trees remained for the picking on that old property. Up and down the Albion, long abandoned apple trees of many varieties still survive, evidence of the logging camps moving eastward throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century up until the mills shut down at the end of the 1920s, in essence leaving the timber lands to regenerate for a full human generation. Even now the occasional walk west down the Albion River from here can provide evidence of ripe apples from a tree near Slaughterhouse Gulch or just this side of Deadman’s Gulch.

The Albion Lumber Company operated not only a slaughterhouse from the 1880s through the 1920s, but also grazed a substantial herd of beef cattle in the field on the opposite side of the river. One can’t truly describe it as south or east of the river since here, too, the tidewater of the Albion bends dramatically at the mouths of Duck Pond Gulch, Slaughterhouse Gulch, Pleasant Valley/Railroad Gulch, and Deadman’s Gulch and a couple of more times between the boom and the Pacific Ocean. The Pomo word for what we call the Albion meant something akin to “crooked river.”

The streams running out of Railroad Gulch, so called because it was the first gulch that the Albion Lumber Company extended a branch of its rails into, and Pleasant Valley Gulch join in a tiny rivulet before meeting the Albion itself. That tiny trickle of summer and fall can turn into a tumbling torrent when sufficient rains fill and overflow the streams of Pleasant Valley and Railroad Gulch in winter.

Some members of the Macdonald family’s Hereford cattle were descended from survivors of the Albion Lumber Co. herd. Others descended from Macdonald cattle who grazed right alongside them, a practice not uncommon in those days, especially when one of the Macdonald brothers, Charles (born at home in 1890), worked as chief assistant to Matt Piper at the slaughterhouse in the 1910s. Until well into the second half of the twentieth century, vehicles could travel from the Littleriver prairie down the Slaughterhouse Road, cross the stream at low tide at the mouth of Duck Pond Gulch then snake their way uphill through a series of turns known as the “Devil’s Gate” to Albion Ridge. Before automobiles, residents of that prairie or the Albion cutoff road wended their way down to the mouth of the next gulch west of Duck Pond on horseback or in wagons to pick out choice cuts of beef from the Albion Lumber Co. slaughterhouse.

The elongated meadow across the river from the mouth of Slaughterhouse Gulch, extending to the mouths of Pleasant Valley and Railroad Gulch, was known for much more than a century as simply “the field.” In the last couple of decades a few misguided individuals have attempted to refer to it as “the enchanted meadow.” Historically speaking, I doubt that those steers taken directly from it to the slaughterhouse felt enchanted.

(The rains have arrived at


  1. Kathy December 17, 2020

    Thx for all the info on the Albion watershed and History.

  2. George Hollister December 17, 2020

    Something I have been concluding about the Albion, correct me if I am wrong, is development along the Albion was railroad centric for over half a century. Starting at the mill and going up to Tom Bell Flat on the main fork, and Keene Summit on the South Fork the economy of the Albion was focused along the railroad. When the railroad era ended, so did all that development. Now there are just ruins, like the Heaton Place, and much more. These homesteads, and everything else like the slaughter house will disappear into history. I don’t hear anything said about this. An unknowing person today might ask, “Why did they put the slaughter house down there. It’s so hard to get to?”

  3. Bill Brazill December 17, 2020

    Thank you Malcolm. Have you ever considered drawing a map of the Albion River and including all the locations you know?

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